What does your diet consist of? According to an analysis of federal data collected between 2001 and 2018, about 58% of the calories that U.S. adults and children ages 1 and older consume in a day come from foods deemed to be “ultra-processed.” Such foods are loosely defined to include ingredients that aren't available in your home kitchen such as high-fructose corn syrup and emulsifiers and involve some amount of engineering. In contrast, unprocessed or minimally processed foods are considered to be close to their natural state—fruits, vegetables, plain meat.
As the U.S. government is preparing the latest version of its dietary guidelines, ultra-processed foods are under intense scrutiny for ostensibly being unhealthy. This is so even though there is little agreement on a definition of what an ultra-processed food actually is. Moreover, even critics acknowledge that not all such foods are unhealthy per se, and they can have significant utility as a delivery system for nutrients due to their low cost, taste, and convenience. Finally, scientists are not entirely certain why it is that greater food processing makes food less healthy and/or why this has been linked to increased risks of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and depression.
For a “food-law geek” like me, the publication of the dietary guidelines is always a big deal. But even for me, I am anxiously awaiting the next iteration of the government's recommendations, particularly to see how ultra-processed foods are addressed by the scientific advisory committee charged with this task. I am hoping that many questions about these foods will be answered.